It was one of those strange coincidences, what the psychoanalyst Carl Jung would have called synchronicity. I had just finished my first novel, which was slated for release in June, and I was struggling with the idea of a new novel about a mother and her daughter who led a fugitive life, moving from town to town to escape capture from a ghost man. I had other new ideas floating around in my head, but this one kept shooting at me. The fictional title I had given to the novel was fugitive pigmentwhich seemed right to me, but I hadn’t yet explained why.
As a writer and painter, I knew the term, fugitive pigmentwhich refers to impermanent pigments derived from nature that fade over time due to light or other atmospheric conditions, a common occurrence in paintings executed before the 20th century and the advent of permanent pigments such as Windsor & Newton.
I had a fuzzy idea what that term had to do with a novel about a mother and daughter on the run, but it wasn’t until that day in February 2014 when I walked into the Chicago Art Institute and I saw an exhibition called Renoir’s True Colors that I understood not only its meaning for the stories of my protagonists, but also my own.
At that time, my life was in motion. A few months after seeing this exhibit, I would move across the country again, a practice that had become all too familiar and detracted from my otherwise positive nature. I have always been a nest. I love the comfort of sameness, knowing the exact shelf where a book I’m looking for is, or seeing the exact same people on a daily walk around the neighborhood. For several years I was a single mother and traveled a lot for my job, but there was always the comfort of home waiting for me and the downtime to rehabilitate.
Then I married a man whose job required moving. I prided myself on my ability to pack my bags in an hour and get to the airport ten minutes early, with a child in tow, no less. I considered this a sign of my flexibility and nomadic prowess, but I was no match for my current reality. I would find that moving every two years was very different from traveling a lot. It involved endless chaos of packing and unpacking, finding new doctors, dentists and hairdressers, choosing a new neighbor you felt comfortable giving an extra key to, locating a space in a new home to write or paint, and all along knowing that these adjustments were temporary, that permanence was elusive.
Maybe it’s the nature of painting, writing, music or love. Seizing the beauty and perfection of the moment and believing that the future it will bring is meant to be.
I remember feeling continually exhausted and like I was disappearing inside myself. I became less social, less resilient. What would normally have been small difficulties started to feel unmanageable. I hid from the world and from myself, refused invitations, stopped looking for new friends. It was just too much work. But this metamorphosis had happened so gradually that I hadn’t made the connection between my feelings and my physical reality. I just kept moving, putting one foot in front of the other. Until this synchronic event.
I was on a business trip and, as I often do, took time out to visit the local art museum. The Art Institute of Chicago has one of the finest collections of Impressionist paintings in the world. Picassos, van Goghs, Seurats, Monets and Manets, and Renoirs to name a few. It was a small accessory exhibition called Renoir’s True Colors which I found so profound that day in February, because the exhibition centered around a little-known artistic term called fugitive pigment.
The exhibition aimed to highlight the effects of fugitive pigments on the paintings of the Old Masters. The main subject of the exhibition was a painting by Pierre-August Renoir titled Mrs Leon Clapisson. According to one description, while removing the canvas from its frame for overdue cleaning, the restorers had accidentally discovered that the edges of the painting below the frame were noticeably brighter, prompting them to realize how much the canvas had faded. To illustrate this phenomenon, two portraits of Mrs hung side by side. The first was the original, painted by Renoir in 1883. It was sumptuous in appearance, illustrating Renoir’s mastery of color, one of the qualities for which he is most praised. I wouldn’t have considered anything less than beautiful until I saw the digital reproduction hanging to the right of the original. The reds, especially in the breeding background, were brilliant.
Over the years, the reds of the original paint had faded considerably. Renoir had been obsessed with finding the most dazzling reds, so much so that he once said: “I want a red to be resonant, to ring like a bell.” I knew from the many art history courses I had taken while obtaining my master’s degree in painting that 19th century textbooks showed that even then artists knew that certain red pigments were fugitives.
So why, I wondered, would Renoir have used a fugitive red that he knew might disappear at some point in the future? A description of the cleaning and restoration process followed by restorers partly answered my question. Through molecular color matching, the restorers were able to determine that the exact hue Renoir had used in the background of the original painting was carmine lake, a rich purple color, which was extracted from the body of an insect called the cochineal, native to South America.
Because of the small scales, carmine lake was extremely expensive, but its exceptional luster made it all the rage, and artists of the time clamored to get their hands on this rare pigment. Renoir, it has been said, was so enamored with the deep, rich pigmentation of carmine that he chose immediate gratification over longevity. As one restaurateur put it At Miss’s Destiny of the 21st century, his reds had bled leaving behind a festering wound of greens and grays. But did Renoir realize just how much the reds would fade? Was he perhaps so enamored that he didn’t think at all?
I remember trying to unpack all of this, the exhibition, Renoir’s painting and his choice to use fugitive pigments on my flight back to my current but not long home in Seattle. The notions of bleeding and leaking and discolored paint stayed with me. I started writing a draft of what was to become my next novel Scarlet in Blue. The name change was an evolution.
As I wrote, even though all I created was fiction, I took the journey of self-discovery with my main characters. As they moved from city to city, I moved from Seattle to South Haven, Michigan, to Charleston, South Carolina, to Houston, Texas. I packed, moved, unpacked, installed, marketed, painted, wrote. Packed, moved, unpacked, installed, browsed, painted, written. Besides family, disparate hiking trails and occasional paintings, writing Scarlet in Blue was the only constant in my life during those years, the only world in which I felt the comfort of sameness. And yet, inside this sameness lived a story in constant evolution, that of two artists, a painter and a musician, fleeing time like Renoir’s painting and me.
Until this exhibit, I hadn’t made the connection between the lifestyle I was living and the story behind the novel I was imagining. Nor had I admitted to myself that the feelings I was experiencing, the exhaustion, the sadness and the need to hide, were the product of a loss. Even though I tried not to bond with these ephemeral towns and homes, as a nester it was unavoidable. It took this exposure for me to see that I was my characters, the running mother and daughter, that time was the ghost man chasing me, and that the fugitive pigment was those parts of me that I felt disappearing. . And that like Renoir, I had chosen this life, chosen these vibrant reds, even though I knew that meant impermanence.
And maybe that’s the nature of painting or writing or music or love. Seizing the beauty and perfection of the moment and believing that the future it will bring is meant to be. Although I may not have been prepared for what lay ahead, I would do it again. I bet Renoir too.
Jennifer Murphy’s Novel Scarlet in Blue is available now through Dutton.